Later, before they reached the main highway, Dusty stopped the car, while Martie walked about fifty feet off the graveled road and found a place to bury the Colt. The sandy soil had not frozen. Digging was easy. She scooped with both hands, put the pistol in the hole, and covered it with eighteen inches of soil. She found a loose rock the size of a bag of sugar and placed it over the hole.
They were unarmed, defenseless now and with more enemies than ever.
At this moment, she was too burnt out to care. Besides, she didn’t want to fire a gun ever again. Maybe tomorrow or the day after, she would feel differently. Time might heal her. No, not heal. But time might harden her.
Housekeeping completed, Martie returned to the dead men’s car, and Dusty drove into Santa Fe.
Cruising south on the Pacific Coast Highway, between Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach. Not much traffic. The residents of the coast at dinner or cozy at home. Only tattered clouds remained, unraveling eastward.
Cold stars, moon of ice. And the silhouette of wings. Night bird seeking prey.
He wouldn’t critique his compositions this evening. He’d grant himself a respite from his obsession with high artistic standards.
Tonight, after all, he was less artist than predator, although the two were not mutually exclusive.
The doctor felt as free as a night bird and young again, fresh from the nest.
He hadn’t killed anyone since he presented poisoned petits fours to his father and made a lasting impression on Viveca’s heart with a half-inch drill bit. For more than twenty years, he had contented himself with corrupting others, dealing death through their obedient hands.
Homicide by remote control was infinitely safer than direct action, of course. For a man who was a prominent member of his community with much to lose, it was necessary to develop a refined sensibility in these matters, to learn to take more pleasure from the power to control other human beings, from having the power to order them to murder, than from the act of murder itself. And the doctor took pride in the fact that his sensibilities were not merely refined or twice refined but distilled to an exquisite purity
Nevertheless, in all honesty he couldn’t deny an occasional yearning for the old days. Ever the sentimentalist.
The prospect of getting right down into the wet nastiness of ultimate violence made him feel like a boy again.
This one night, then. This one indulgence. For old times’ sake. Then another twenty years of unwavering self-denial.
Ahead of him, without benefit of a turn signal, the pickup turned right, off the highway, onto an approach road that led down through a section of undeveloped shore property to a parking lot that served a public beach.
This turn of events surprised Ahriman. He drove onto the shoulder of the highway, stopped, and switched off his headlights.
The pickup had descended out of sight.
At this hour, especially on a cool January night, Skeet and the blushing man were most likely the only people visiting the beach. If Ahriman drove in immediately behind them, even this clueless pair would have to suspect a tail.
He would wait ten minutes. If they didn’t return in that time, he’d have to follow them into the parking lot.
A lonely stretch of beach might be a fine place to whack them.
By daylight, Santa Fe had been enchanting. On this snowy night, every street along which they drove seemed sinister.
Martie had a far stronger awareness of altitude than previously. The air was too insipid to nourish her. She hunched around a weakness in her chest, a shriveling sensation, as though her lungs were half collapsed and wouldn’t inflate in such thin atmosphere. A lightness in her body, an unpleasant buoyancy, gave her the queasy feeling that at these rarefied heights, gravity was diminished and her ties to the earth at risk.
All these sensations were subjective, and the truth was that she wanted out of Santa Fe neither because the air was really gruel-thin nor because she might slip the bonds of Earth. She wanted out because here she had discovered qualities within herself that she would have preferred never to recognize. The farther she traveled from Santa Fe, the more easily she might be able to make peace with these discoveries.
Besides, the risks of staying in the city even until they could catch the first flight out in the morning were too great. Perhaps Kevin and Zachary wouldn’t be missed for many hours yet. More likely, they were expected to report to someone at the institute when they had completed their assignment, which they ought to have done by now. Soon, people might be looking for them, for their car—and then for Martie and Dusty.
“Albuquerque,” Dusty suggested.
“About sixty miles.”
“Can we make it in this weather?”
At last a commanding wind had risen, lashing the snowfall with discipline until it had become a snowstorm. Rigorously marshaled ghost-white armies blitzed across the high plains.
“Might be less snow as we lose some altitude.”
“Albuquerque’s bigger than Santa Fe?”
“Six or seven times bigger. Easier to hide until morning.”
“They have an airport?” she asked.
“A big one.”
“Then let’s go.”
The wipers brushed snow off the windshield and gradually swept away Santa Fe, as well.
Even as Dr. Ahriman waited along the side of the Coast Highway, a sudden onshore wind blew through the tall shore grass and buffeted the El Camino harder than did the slipstreams of passing cars and trucks. A good wind would help to cover the crack of gunshots and would at least distort them so that getting an accurate directional fix on the source would be difficult for anyone who happened to hear the reports.
Yet the doctor had doubts about the beach, too. What were these two geeks doing there at this time of night, in this cool weather?
What if they were two of those kooks who tested their stamina by swimming in very cold water? Polar bears, they called themselves. And what if they were polar bears who liked to skinny-dip?
The prospect of encountering Skeet and his pal sans clothing was enough to alter the doctor’s relationship to the four cookies that he had eaten. One a walking skeleton, the other a Pillsbury Doughboy wanna-be.
He didn’t believe they were gay, though he couldn’t rule out the possibility, either. A little romantic assignation in a beach parking lot.
If he found them in their car, going at each other like two hairless monkeys, should he kill them as planned or give them a reprieve?
When the bodies were found, the police and media would assume that they had been killed because of their sexual orientation. That would be annoying. The doctor was not homophobic. He was not a bigot of any stripe. He chose his targets with a sense of fair play and a belief in equal opportunity.
Admittedly he had brought suffering to more women than men. He was, however, in the process of redressing that imbalance within the hour—and especially by the time he finished playing out the game in which these two killings were but one inning.
After ten minutes, when the pickup didn’t return, the doctor set aside his misgivings. In the interest of sport, he switched on the headlights and drove down to the parking lot.
The truck was indeed the only vehicle in sight.
Only moonlight brightened the lot, but Ahriman could see that no one was in the cab of the pickup.
If romance was in the picture, they might have adjourned to the camper shell. Then he remembered the dog. He grimaced with disgust. Surely not.
He parked two spaces from the truck and counseled himself to move quickly. The police might patrol lots like this, once or twice during the night, to discourage teenage drinkers from staging rowdy parties. If the patrolmen recorded license-plate numbers, Dr. Ahriman would have a problem come morning, when the bodies were discovered. The trick was to hit them fast and get out before the cops or anyone else drove in from the highway.
He pulled the ski mask over his head, exited the El Camino, and locked the door. He might have saved a few precious seconds on his return if he’d left the vehicle unlocked; however, even here in this long stretch of the California Gold Coast, in Orange County where the crime rate was much lower than elsewhere, untrustworthy people were unfortunately still to be found.
The wind was lovely: cool but not chilling, turbulent but not so strong that it would hamper him, certain to damp and distort the gunfire. And the nearest house along the shore was a mile north.
Upon hearing the low thunder of the breaking surf, he realized that not only the wind would conspire with him. All of nature in this fallen world seemed allied with him, and he was overcome by a sweet sense of belonging.
Drawing the Taurus PT-111 Millennium from his shoulder holster, the doctor walked briskly to the pickup. He glanced through the cab window, just to be sure no one was inside.
At the back of the truck, he pressed one mask-covered ear to the door of the camper shell, listening for sounds of bestiality, and was relieved to hear nothing.
He stepped past the truck and, surveying the night, spotted an odd light down on the shore and perhaps fifty yards to the north. The moonlight revealed two men twenty feet back from the tide line, huddled at some task.
He wondered if they could be digging for clams. The doctor had no idea where clams were dug up, or when, because that was work, and he had little interest in the subject. Some were born to work, some to play, and he knew into which camp the stork had delivered him.
A set of concrete steps with a pipe railing led down a ten-foot-high embankment to the beach, but he preferred not to approach these men along the strand. In the moonlight, they would see him coming, and they might suspect that his intentions weren’t good.
Instead, Ahriman headed north through soft sand and shore grass, staying well back from the edge of the embankment, so that his prey would not glance up and see him silhouetted against the sky.
His handmade Italian shoes were filling with sand. By the time this was finished, they would be too abraded to take a good shine.
Moonglow on the sand. Black shoes wear pale glowing scuffs. Should I blame the moon?
He wished he’d had an opportunity to change clothes. He still wore the suit in which he had started the day, and it was dreadfully rumpled. Appearance was an important part of strategy, and no game was what it ought to be if played in the wrong costume. Fortunately, the darkness and the moonlight would make him look better-pressed and more elegant than he actually was.
When he had mentally measured fifty yards, Ahriman approached the brink of the low bluff—and directly in front of him were Skeet and his buddy. They stood only fifteen feet from the foot of the embankment, facing away from him and toward the sea.
The golden retriever was with them. It, too, was facing the Pacific. The onshore flow, blowing toward Ahriman, ensured that the dog wouldn’t catch his scent.
He watched them, trying to figure out what they were doing.
The Skeeter was holding a battery-powered signal light with a semaphore shutter and a quick-flick lens system that allowed him to change the color of the beam. Apparently, he was flashing a message to someone at sea.
In his right hand, the other man had what might have been a small directional microphone with a dish receiver and a pistol grip. In his left hand, he was holding a set of headphones, pressing one of the cups to his left ear, though he was unlikely to be able to pluck any conversations out of the blustering wind.
Then Ahriman realized the men weren’t aiming the signal light or the microphone at any ships at sea, but high into the night sky.
Unable to understand what he might be walking into, the doctor almost decided to back off from his plan. He was too hot for action, however. Deciding to hesitate no longer, he quickly descended the crumbling embankment. The shifting sand was silent underfoot.
He could have shot them in the back. But ever since his fantasy in the antique-toy store earlier in the day, he had been itching to gut-shoot someone. Besides, blasting people in the back was no fun; you couldn’t see their faces, their eyes.
He walked boldly around in front of the men, startling both of them. Pointing the Millennium at the blushing man, the doctor raised his voice to compete with the wind and the crashing surf. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Aliens,” the man answered.
“Making contact,” said Skeet.
Assuming that they were high on a combination of drugs and that neither of them was likely to make any sense, Ahriman shot Skeet’s pal twice in the gut. The man was flung backward, instantly dead or dying, dropping the microphone and the headset as he fell.
The doctor turned to the astonished Skeet and shot him twice in the gut, too, and Skeet dropped like a biology-lab skeleton clipped loose from its suspension rack.
Stars, moon, and gunshots. Two deaths here where life began. The sea and the surf.
Quickness counts. No time for poetry. Two more rounds in the chest for the downed Skeet—wham, wham—finishing him for sure.
“Your mother’s a whore, your father’s a fraud, your stepfather’s got pig shit for brains,” Ahriman gloated.
Swivel, aim. Wham, wham. Two more in the chest for Skeet’s idiot buddy, just for good measure. Regrettably, the doctor knew nothing about this man’s family, so he couldn’t flavor the moment with any colorful insults.
The pungent stink of gunfire was satisfying, but unfortunately the inconstant moonlight wasn’t the ideal illumination in which to enjoy the blood and the ravages of the shattered flesh.
Perhaps he could spare a minute with his penknife to take some mementos.
He felt so young. Rejuvenated. Death was definitely what life was all about.
Two shots left.
The mild-mannered retriever was whining, yelping, even daring to bark. The dog had backed off toward the surf and was not going to attack. Nevertheless, the doctor decided to save both the ninth and tenth rounds for Valet.
As the eighth shot was still ringing in his ears, he swung the gun toward the dog—and almost squeezed the trigger before realizing that Valet didn’t appear to be barking at him but at something on the low bluff behind him.
When Ahriman turned, he saw a strange figure standing atop the embankment, gazing down at him. For an instant he had the crazy idea that this was one of the aliens with which Skeet and his pal had been trying to make contact.
Then he recognized the off-white St. John suit, luminous in the moonlight, and the blond hair, and the arrogant posture of the nouveau riche.
In the office, earlier in the day, in a spasm of paranoia, she had accused him of having a patient conflict, of possible unethical conduct. You don’t know K-K-Keanu, do you, Doctor?
At the time, he thought he had charmed her out of her absurd suspicion, but evidently not.
The doctor, of all people, should have known better. This was one of his psychiatric specialties, and also the subject of his next best-selling book, Fear Not for I Am with You. Severe obsessives and severe phobics, of which she was both, were highly unpredictable and, in the worst cases, capable of extremely irrational behavior. She was trouble in six-hundred-dollar shoes.
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